Wings of Hope

Ken Loach

Ken Loach

Billy Casper (David Bradley), dirty-faced and shabbily dressed, already futureless at 15, lives on a housing estate in Barnsley, a coal mining town in Northern England.  He sleeps in the same sagging bed with his abusive older brother and is generally dismissed by his put-upon mother. He steals cigarettes and junk food while completing his daily pre-school paper route. Puny and sullen, Billy is ridiculed by classmates and reprimanded by the teachers, often for imaginary infractions.

The character could have been easily been belittled, stereotyped by the filmmaker, but here Billy’s story is stripped of sentimentality. “Kes” (1969), based on Barry Hines’ novel, “A Kestrel for a Knave,” is a soaring masterpiece, directed by the great Ken Loach (who, over a career of more than four decades, has produced an undidactic and cinematically rich body of work dealing with political and social injustice ).

Although it’s been endlessly reinforced that he’s intellectually lacking, and Billy himself says he can barely read and write, it’s wildly untrue–his intelligence, quickness and ambition survive in surroundings that see his potential as no more than necessary unskilled labor.

Billy is determined to capture and train a young kestrel hawk he’s spotted in a nest in the woods and these are scenes of beauty, contrasting with the grimness of Billy’s home, town and school, all shot in natural light by the great DP Chris Menges. Unable to navigate the rules required to borrow a book from the local library, Billy steals one from a shop and pours himself into training his beloved Kes.

Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), the sole teacher to show interest in Billy, asks him a question and as he discusses how he caught and works with Kes, mesmerizes the sympathetic teacher and his surprised classmates.

Farthing visits Billy at home and watching him work with Kes–the teenager says, she is “flying in a pocket of silence”–and immensely moved by the totality of the experience, exclaims, that it’s the “most exciting thing I’ve seen in my life.”

“Kes” was made with a cast of unprofessional actors (with the exception of Welland), speaking in their Yorkshire accents, which can sometimes be unintelligible to American ears. But while some specifics might be lost, the ideas and emotions are palpable.

“Kes”opens today at Film Forum for a one-week run.  Critic Graham Fuller, co-author with Ken Loach of the book “Loach on Loach,” will introduce today’s 7:40 pm show.  The film is a must-see.

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Aquaman Saved From Drowning

Karim Aïnouz, NYC, 4/4/03

Karim Aïnouz, NYC, 4/4/03

Director Karin Aïnouz’s new film, “Futuro Beach,” is an elliptically told and impressionistically photographed mediation on love, loss and choosing one’s life.

Donato (Wagner Moura), a young Brazilian who loves the sea (and is so at home and skilled in the water that his adoring much younger brother, Ayrton, calls him Aquaman), works as a lifeguard at Praia do Futuro. His life seems to fit him–his closeness to his family, comraderie with fellow lifeguards (a scene of them exercising, in its beauty, is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ young soldiers in “Beau Travail”), the salty air and mostly uneventful, sunny days.

When two vacationing German motorbike racers, ex-army buddies from Afghanistan, get overwhelmed by the turbulent water, Donato’s rescue attempt falls short. While Konrad (Clemens Schick) is brought to the surface, Heiko is consumed by the sea. But the stranger’s accident/tragedy is the catalyst that transforms Donato’s life and propels him into a previously unimagined  future.

Feeling shame and guilt over Heiko’s death, Donato starts a love affair with Konrad and when the extensive search along jagged shore and in endless water for Heiko’s body unsuccessfully concludes, Donato abandons what he knows and goes with him to Berlin.

Donato, even after the joy of his relationship with Konrad dissipates, remains in cold, grey Berlin, estranged from his family, working at swimming pools, and as a diver cleaning a hotel’s multi-story, cylindrical fish tank. Eight years pass and the unexpected arrival of Ayrton (Jesuita Barbosa), now grown, is another kind of catalyst, driving another future.

“Futuro Beach” will open on Friday, February 27 at the IFC Center. Karim Aïnouz (who also directed the riveting, ravishingly shot “Madame Satã”) will be in in person for Q&As at the 7:25 pm shows on opening night, moderated by Ira Sachs, and on Saturday, February 28, moderated by Tom Kalin and Rose Troche.


When I shot Karim Aïnouz in Susan Norget‘s garden, it was the chilly beginning of spring (and I’m amazed that it’s nearly 12 years ago). I liked having the the small lanterns above Karim and thought that they evoked the club lights in “Madame Satã.” Now they also make me think of water bubbles.

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Screwball Romantic Comedy or Noirish Murder Mystery? Yes.

Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine, NYC, 6/18/14

Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine, NYC, 6/18/14

Subject to fits of exuberance (which include jumping up and down) and pique (which include jumping up and down), Barri (Sophia Takal), is adored by her fiancé Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine), whose affect is much more subdued. He “loves her crazy energy.” His “excessive drinking and terrible driving” don’t diminish her ardor. The duo has great chemistry.

“Wild Canaries,” written and directed by Levine and produced by real-life spouse Takal, begins as a quotidian tale of the mostly young occupants of a small Brooklyn building.  But when Barri, arriving to give a chess lesson, discovers their elderly downstairs neighbor Sylvia (MaryLouise Burke) dead on the bedroom floor, the proceedings take a hilarious turn for the sinister.

Convinced that Sylvia was the victim of murder (most foul), Barri goes full-on Nancy Drew (adorable in a beige trench coat and khaki bucket hat pulled down low)–breaking and entering, trailing suspects, snooping.  When Noah, bemused, insists that nothing seems unusual to him about Sylvia, 80+, dying, Barri enlists the couple’s close friend and roommate, Jean (Alia Shawkat), to help her crack the case.

Suspects emerge and recede as another body (part, actually ) is discovered. A laid-back dub reggae score by Michael Montes pairs perfectly with the manic goings-on. Noah and his attractive his ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse), now living with a woman (he says, “I annoyed the straight out of you”) get swept up into the proceedings; two running gags (Noah’s serial injuries/general hypochondria and his inability to wrangle his new cell phone), funny throughout, cleverly advance the plot; car and foot chases ensue; and the group tracks down the killer, executing what Barri characterizes as a “very dangerous plan based on a hunch.”

“Wild Canaries” will open on Wednesday, February 25 at the IFC Center. Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and cast members Jason Ritter and Kevin Corrigan will in person at the 7:50 pm show on opening night and on Thursday, February 26.  The film will open in Los Angeles and Seattle on Friday, March 6 and in Miami on Friday, March 13.

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“The Relationship Between Memory and Imagination Is Mysterious Territory”

John Boorman, NYC, 2/17/15

John Boorman, NYC, 2/17/15

In the truly enjoyable and very moving “Queen and Country,” John Boorman’s sequel of sorts to his wonderful autobiographical film, “Hope and Glory” (1987)–the account of a nine-year-old boy’s experiences during the blitz in London–the great director revisits his alter ego, Bill Rohan.

It’s now 1952. Bill (charming, blue-eyed Callum Turner) is 18, slacking off at his family’s home on an island in the Thames (where they had moved during World War II after a bomb destroyed their house in London), waiting to be drafted into the army for two years, and possibly sent to fight in Korea.  One day he goes for his routine swim and discovers a small film crew at the water. Watching the director ordering multiple takes, Bill decides that shooting a film, “over and over, until they (get) it right (is) much better than life, where you only have one go.”

At basic training, Bill, sweet-natured (but with a sly streak), meets frenetic, trouble-generating Percy (Caleb Landry Jones, amazing). Neither is shipped off to Korea, but are promoted to sergeant, and assigned to teach typing and other skills (they barely have) to newer conscripts.

Fighting the boredom of their military service and the stultifying rigidity of their superior officer, Sgt. Major Bradley (the great David Thewlis), they pull pranks, smoke cigarettes, try to attract young women and form a real friendship. Together they grow from teenagers into young men, trying to define themselves, as the empire declines, as part of a generation determined to create a more egalitarian country.

Although the events in the film occurred more than 60 years ago, realized with great performances and exacting details, beautifully shot (no clichéd honeyed light here), they’re immediate and urgent.  The nostalgic sense of longing and loss has a rare honesty.  Says Boorman, “As with ‘Hope and Glory,’ my memories of that time have been replaced by the scenes in the film.”

During our shoot we talked a bit about film vs. digital.  I like digital but 35mm, not so much, miss 6×6 and feel like I’ve been demoted. Boorman shot “Queen and Country” digitally and commented that even when a director chooses film, the work is digitized for projection and that projectionists are yet another group made extinct by the new technology.  He added that he had had an appointment at a post-production facility in Ireland to watch a cut of his film and when he arrived, only a cleaning woman was there, going about her work. Asked when someone was scheduled to show him the film, she said, “Oh, I can do that, come with me” and flicked a switch.

Unlike with film, with digital prints, Boorman continued, you know exactly what the audience will see.  “Do you know the quote about film projection by Stanley Kubrick, that it’s the projectionist who has final cut?”

John Boorman is 82 (“Not the oldest director in the world,” he said at yesterday’s shoot–we agreed that title belongs to Manoel de Oliveira, 104) and although I’d read that “Queen and Country” would be his last film, he said he has a new script, “We’ll see.”

“Queen and Country” opens today at Film Forum for a two-week run, with John Boorman in person at the 7:00 pm show today and on Friday, February 20. The film will open in Los Angeles on Friday, February 27.

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Leo is 13 today, lucky us–our sweet, hungry, athletic teenager, doing his best to raise the average life expectancy of Labradors everywhere. (Oops, we’re totally unprepared for a bark mitzvah.)

I’m not sure whether or not Pope Francis said there are dogs in heaven (which would make the place infinitely appealing–and after all what’s dog spelled backwards?). But I do know that Leo has saintly patience and spent a couple of weeks last summer recovering from successful upper eyelid surgery to remove a scary growth (done by wonderful Dr. Mundy, on a Wednesday), enduring a misplaced fade that looked like a large arching eyebrow, and of course the bothersome white plastic cone.

Westminster wraps up tonight. But I already know that Leo will win best (black) Lab showing up on the old red wool sofa, which was supposed to be discarded when a sleek gray replacement arrived last fall. But because he and Ryder love nesting in it, it’s been shoved into an available area in my studio.

Happy birthday, big, beautiful Schmoo, and many more.

Leo, Croton-on-Hudson, NY, 2/23/14

Leo, Croton-on-Hudson, NY, 2/23/14

Leo, Stone Ridge, NY, 1/11/15

Leo, Stone Ridge, NY, 1/11/15


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Pretty/Dismal (Stillwater Diary)

Esopus Creek, Stone Ridge, NY; Phoenicia, NY

Esopus Creek, Stone Ridge, NY; Phoenicia, NY

My four years in Binghamton should have accustomed me to perpetual snow, gray skies and general dreary. But I still resent living subject to polar pigs, Alberta clippers, etc., and (except when I’m snowshoeing and get what’s attractive about this season) spend my winters California dreamin’.

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Love’s (Willing) Labor

Joe Callander, NYC, 6/26/14

Joe Callander, NYC, 6/26/14

Joe Callander’s “Midnight Three & Six” is an amazing film, quietly demonstrating how simple love can be (even in a very complicated situation ) and how normal it is to want to grow up and be independent.

Grace, 15, has had particularly volatile Type 1 diabetes for eight years, which requires endless monitoring of her blood glucose levels. Controlling her life-threatening illness requires lots of equipment and medication, which her mother, Patricia, lays out for the camera in a giant pile on their kitchen counter. Grace, stands on one side of the frame, looking bored, and acting teenage cool says, “I’m trying to act interested.” (But in fact she is, keenly aware of her situation and grateful to have her beloved black Lab diabetes alert dog, Jackie, whom she calls, “my other half.”)

Monitoring continues throughout the night, at the three intervals that give the films its title, as Grace’s mother or father, “on duty,” responds to the insistent alarm clock and sleepily heads to Grace’s room.

“Midnight Three & Six,” Callander’s second short to screen at Sundance was recently included in the New York Times’ Op-Docs* section.  Here’s his earlier film, “Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns,” and scroll down to below the sharing icons to see the description of this kind of love.

*This part of the Times often has great films but I when I see the section’s name, I can’t help but think, “What’s Op Docs?”

Funny coincidence (or maybe not) but Callander is the second very tall filmmaker I’ve shot wearing great sunglasses.  Here’s the other.

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